“We are very happy to accommodate you, Mr. Dubois,” said the young woman with a devilish grin. “Your first time in Odessa?”
“Oui,” sighed Dubois, an arm propped against the front doorframe to keep himself standing. “I’m told your rooms are quiet, Mademoiselle. My nerves you see. I’ve been hunting for a lodging half the night and must have sleep!”
Her grin widened and Dubois chastised himself for his honesty. They might charge him more, now, desperate as he was, a Frenchman lost in the Russian Empire. Well, they were lucky he’d stay here at all given the rumors about this half-hidden lodging house in the drizzling seaport. Each inn without vacancy tonight mentioned this abode as an alternative, and every mentioning brought warnings in Russian, Ukrainian, Greek, or Yiddish:
Guests quit this house in the middle of the night.
Or ran out in such panic that they tumbled down the Boulevard Staircase.
Or simply disappeared.
Go there only if you must!
Dubois was assured by other members of the Club Nautique that these rumors were unfounded, merely malicious gossip made by rival inns and dosshouses who wanted foreign marine merchants as tenants for themselves. He trusted his fellows more than the locals …
So, here he was, past two o’clock in the morning, at the most infamous house in Odessa, hoping they had a room. Everywhere else refused him shelter.
The young woman stepped aside and let him enter a tiny lamplit parlor, thin shadows crawling up the paneled walls to pool in the corners of a high ceiling.
What a dreary place. Yet, he could not knock on another door, not interview another potential landlord at this hour. He might drop right here from exhaustion and never rise.
“Fifteen kopeks,” said his smiling hostess. “In advance.”
“Quinze? That is all?”
“To charge more would be a cheat.”
A welcome surprise. That smile, it seemed, was not treacherous but accommodating. Clearly, it was the honesty and low prices that forced the slander from rival lodging houses. This girl’s family undercut the market and paid for it by ill will and mean talk from competitors.
He handed her the coins. “C’est bien. If the bed is comfy, then a bargain, Mademoiselle Eleni. It was Eleni, n’est-ce pas? And I hope the room is quiet. Did I mention this?”
“You did.” The smile faded and she cast her eyes downwards. “The whole house is quiet, Mr. Dubois. Quiet as a grave since my sister vanished.”
Ah, oui? He maintained his reserve. “Your sister disappeared?”
“We try not to talk about our tragedy with guests. It breeds ill gossip … but I always trust Frenchmen, so chivalrous, so cultured and candid,” said she, stifling a sob. “Odessa is hollow with catacombs even more expansive than those in your Paris. Every cellar, backroom or dark nook has a bricked-over passage leading to those old tunnels. Except ours wasn’t bricked. Not then, not when she went …” The sob broke into a full cry. “Gone forever!”
“I understand. No need to recollect sorrows at this ungodly hour, ma fille. If I may—”
“My sister Anastasia—we called her ‘Tasia’—had a sweetheart. A man that Mama forbade her to see. Tasia would sneak out to meet him, winding through the endless catacombs, lantern in her hand, shadows on the winding walls. Sometimes I went with her, that night I didn’t. While Tasia was in the maze a terrible storm broke inland from the Black Sea. Torrents of rainwater flowed through the streets and washed away everything underneath. The catacombs, our cellar, everywhere flooded. My sister was carried off through the underground passages to the sea. A fisherman on the coast saw a woman’s hand gripping for a stone at the runoff. The grip held for a moment—then was lost! He couldn’t save her. We expect Tasia drowned.”
Her eyes rose to meet his. Dubois felt a twinge of sympathy surmount his sleepiness.